Fifteen years ago yesterday, I stepped off a plane to start a new life – and get my first experience of the UK education system – in Scotland. It was the beginning of a wonderful new relationship with the country.
In many ways, it feels like a very long time ago: so much has happened since. When I arrived, the news agenda was dominated by the Iraq war. In Westminster, cracks were appearing between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and, on the other side, Iain Duncan Smith was months away from being deposed as Tory leader. Here, in Scotland, a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition under Jack McConnell made the SNP’s dream of an independence referendum seem nothing more than that – a dream.
Where is the Love? by the Black Eyed Peas was number one in the UK singles charts (little did I know that a decade later I would end up covering a sector where that song would perfectly describe its relationship with government) – incidentally following Elton John’s Are You Ready for Love in that top spot. It was one of many ironies of the day lost on a German with admittedly rather basic English skills and still trying to work out the difference between red, green and blue milk.
Much has changed in education in the past 15 years, too. In anticipation of this article, I asked education leaders what they remembered most about that time, and they recounted the appearance of the first Chartered Teacher posts, and the final stage of a pay rise associated with the “A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century” agreement in schools.
Protecting students' mental health
In FE, what jumps out is the structural change that has altered the face of the sector for good. Mergers north and south of the border resulted in 100 fewer colleges in England and a reduction from over 40 in Scotland, where there are now 13 college regions – most with only one large college.
It is difficult now to remember a time when there was no Brexit cloud hovering above the entire public discourse, or to think that the world of 2003 could have anything in common with 2018.
But what this anniversary has made me realise is that, regardless of the change in policy priority or educational structures, we must not take our eyes off what has remained at the heart of it all.
There seems to be much more talk now across education about the wellbeing of students, considering mental health issues and the “whole child”. Recently, the government announced funding to help to tackle mental health issues in colleges – and any cash to support what colleges can do for students who are struggling is certainly welcome.
But this week I read the views of a 14-year-old, who said he felt that, despite the countless initiatives he had seen advertised and talked about in his school, what was missing was a feeling that his teachers’ doors would really be open to him. Despite warm words, he did not always feel he could turn to his teachers. It is difficult to criticise them. Can we say, hand on heart, that in the stress of day-to-day life, we pay as much attention to the wellbeing of the young people around us as we ought to?
At the heart of it, education is, and always has been, about human relationships. It is about the connection between teachers and pupils, lecturers and students, and the communities that are education staff and students.
So let’s make sure we look out for those young people we encounter – and don’t let ourselves get carried away by the fast pace of change around us and the latest policy fad.